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Art Beat


The Curatrix


[photo of Shelley Hagen in front of museum art display]IT'S NO SECRET THAT I CONSIDER THE NORTH Coast to be a very special place in terms of the arts, but then I live here, so I'm probably biased. That's why I always find it interesting to hear the more objective opinions of those outside "art experts" who are brought to town by local organizations like the Redwood Art Association (RAA) or the Humboldt Arts Council (HAC) to judge and/or jury* our art competitions. I always hope I'll gain new insight into our community of artists via an outsider's eyes.

Unfortunately, however, many of these experts breeze into town, quickly pass judgment, and then just as rapidly disappear, leaving us scratching our heads over their choices or licking the wounds of our battered individual or communal egos. The experts generally don't stay around long enough to get more than a taste of the region and rarely make themselves available to discuss their aesthetic choices. If we're lucky, they may provide a vague statement to tack on the wall before they hightail it out of town, but most artists don't actually get the opportunity to meet or talk to them.

A refreshing exception to this (admittedly stereotypical) pattern was Shelley Hagen, the most recent art expert to visit our area. Hagen juried HAC's Annual Member Exhibition (in the Anderson and Knight Galleries at the Graves) last week while she was in town helping HAC's exhibition coordinator Cory Gundlach curate the A.G. Edwards Corporate Art Collection in the Thonson Gallery. (She works as A.G. Edwards' staff curator.)

Not only did Hagen stick around town for awhile (she was here for several days), but she was also widely accessible, giving many local artists and art enthusiasts the opportunity to meet her. She was available for questions when people picked up their entries that weren't included in the member show, she attended the Arts Alive! opening receptions for both exhibits at the Graves, and she gave a lecture on Sunday. During breaks from her work at the museum, she tromped around town, looking at art.

I first met Hagen on Saturday night at the Graves and, frankly, she wasn't at all what I expected. In spite of her dauntingly impressive credentials (including a Ph.D. in art history from Yale), she proved to be forthright and down to earth, with a quick sense of humor. "My nickname around [A.G. Edwards] corporate headquarters is `The Curatrix,'" she told me during our first conversation. Corporate interests don't always align with her artistic sensibilities, she said. "I have to put my foot down a lot."

Hagen has a sincere passion for art and strong opinions about art in corporate as well as museum settings, opinions she shared openly during a series of conversations we had, as well as at her lecture at the Graves on Sunday, an event she described as her "dog and pony show".

At the lecture Hagen jokingly described her position as the curator of the A.G. Edwards collection as a "glorified interior decorator" responsible for roughly 4,500 pieces of art. "The A.G. Edwards mission statement is to have 95 percent of the collection on display at all times for the enjoyment of the employees," Hagen said, explaining that this is the opposite of most museums, where perhaps 5 percent of a collection is typically on display at any given time.

According to Hagen, this noble policy of living with the collection presents unique challenges for a curator. She showed slides of brooms or chairs propped up against the art as well as spills which have seeped under frames and mats. She noted the inherent problems with exposing a collection composed primarily of works on paper to the elements for lengthy periods of time, and talked about complaints from employees regarding the subject matter (or lack thereof) of the art hanging in offices and hallways.

Hagen also showed slides of some of the exhibitions she's put together at her corporate headquarters in St. Louis, and it was apparent that she's comfortable working in large spaces and has a strong and confident aesthetic vision. This vision was evident in the Graves exhibits as well.

The images included in A.G. Edwards exhibit reflect careful consideration and planning in terms of content as well as visual imagery. A nice range of prints by such "big names" as Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Jean-Claude Christo, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and Sol LeWitt are included in the exhibit, and well-researched, informative text is included with each image.

I was particularly taken by the images by Darren Waterston (an artist I wasn't familiar with), which include two monotypes from his Shangri-la series and a color etching. I was also happy to see atypical examples of both Warhol's and Motherwell's work. Kudos to both Gundlach and Hagen for the selections and presentation of the images in this important show.

Hagen's choices for the HAC Member show were equally well considered and she notes that she was extremely impressed by the local art she saw while she was on the North Coast. She also added that she was sorry A.G. Edwards had put a stay on purchasing art for their collection three years ago.

"I like to think when we do start buying again, I'm going to be a real bitch about it," Hagen told us during her lecture in the Thonson Gallery. "I want to support new artists. Look at the member show here, for example -- wow. I want to take you back home with me and share you with the thousands of people who come through our offices." She gestured around the room at the Warhols and the Motherwells. "This is all great," she said. "But corporate collections should also be about supporting today's artists."

* According to Libby Maynard of The Ink People, a show is "judged" for
prizes, and "juried" for exhibition, even if only one judge is making the decision.


Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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